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The Bubble

"You have to come out sometime, you know."

I sat up with a start, blinking. Must have fallen asleep, I guess. Not that it mattered a bit, but I was still startled by the sight of all the police cruisers, TV crews, and onlookers milling around in the floodlit night. The noise they all made was a dull murmur; at 3 AM, everybody was starting to get a little tired and sleepy. I recognized some of the faces, but others had come and gone since the last time I checked.

Sharpe was still there, however. He still looked pretty much in control of his surroundings, sitting there in a lawn chair outside the bubble, reminding me that I couldn't stay in the bubble forever. I yawned, scratched, and blinked stupidly at him until his face swam into focus. He was wrong, of course, but I wasn't about to tell him that. He was, I think, the only one in the whole crowd who hadn't lost his mind. He waited until he knew I had shaken the cobwebs out of my brain, then lifted a coffee mug in my direction as if he were toasting my health.

I picked up my Thermos of coffee. After a few minutes of intense concentration, I got enough brain cells cooperating with my hands to get the lid off and pour a cup of my own. Triumphantly, I raised my mug at Sharpe, returning the gesture.

With a few swallows of coffee headed down, I took more of an interest in my surroundings. As I goaded my brain into some sense of normal operation, I noticed that there were quite a few more patrol cars and news crews on the scene. It was only natural, I expect; situations like mine always tend to attract a mindless feeding frenzy of law enforcement and media attention. Nothing can stop one of these avalanches of hype but a spectacular death or some other apocalyptic resolution to the problem, and even then the jackals feed on the bits and scraps for years, writing instant books and made-for-TV miniseries projects, one after another rehashing the obvious.

How had it come to this, anyway? What was I really doing there, pinned like a butterfly in the intersecting beams of hot spotlights, in the center of a whirl of activity that would not stop until I was dead, vanished, or dissected to bits by the hungry wolves of world attention?

I'm an engineer.

I'm not a very good engineer, actually, but I get by. I know enough about the job I do to keep myself on the payroll, and I sometimes entertain the fantasy that I could have been a really GREAT engineer if I had made some different choices and gotten some different breaks, but most days I just show up for work, get the job done, and go home. Funny how your life in retrospect seems like a solid structure, with events and circumstances fitting together so tightly that you can't wedge a sliver of uncertainty or finger of doubt between them. Looking at life from the other end, you can remember when your future was a swirl of possibilities, terrifying in its complexity and its sheer number of choices and options. How does your life change from the swirling chaos of alternate futures to the unforgiving brickwork of history? One choice, one event at a time, cementing themselves in place as the clock ticks inexorably forward.

Sometimes I'm possessed by fantasies of saving the world and creating wonderful inventions of every sort, and I spend my time in a sort of blissed-out haze, floating a few inches above the pavement everywhere I go. Other days, I am convinced that I'm a middle-aged, pot-bellied individual who is mediocre in virtually every respect, and I can almost hear the Grim Reaper's clock ticking off the remaining seconds in my middle-class, pedestrian, totally undistinguished life. Those days pass with agonizing slowness.

Most of the time, I perform a delicate balancing act, keeping part of my brain numb to the idea of advancing age and my life's lack of purpose while setting up small goals for myself so that I can feel good about accomplishing them.

Don't frown at that lifestyle; you'd be amazed (or more likely shocked, perhaps a bit sad) to learn how many people in this world know exactly what I'm talking about. If you make your goals too large or grand, it takes you too long to accomplish them and it's almost impossible to maintain any level of excitement about working toward the goal. Make your goals too small, and the emotional high you get when the goal is reached is not enough to carry you through the emotional trough that always follows even the most minor accomplishment. Throughout the whole thing, you must always be on your guard, maintaining a steady focus on the here and now to avoid thinking thoughts about eternity past, eternity future, what life was like when you were younger (ten years or ten minutes ago, take your pick), or what the next ten years has in store for you.

So, anyway, I'm an engineer -- and a damn moody and bipolar one at that, it seems. Not quite manic, not really depressive, just in some sort of quietly desperate grey-flannel no-man's-land in between. Definitely not the sort of person you'd expect to see on the nightly news.

So why am I here now?

During one of my 'inventor' moods, I actually discovered something.

It's not a cure for the common cold, an inexhaustible power source, or anything quite so dramatic, but as far as I can tell I was the first one to happen across it. I guess that makes it my discovery.

I'm not going to explain it here in any detail, because that would defeat the purpose (the only remaining purpose) of my whole life. Reading these lines, rearranging the letters in the words, and applying your whole repertiore of cabalistic cryptographic cunning will do you no good at all; the secret of the bubble is safe in my head. If you want to know how it works, go out and discover the principles for yourself, good luck to you, and be damned.

Anyway, what I found was the guiding principle that makes the bubble possible. It's really not all that complicated (yes, indeed, I am taunting you a little bit -- so sue me), and it can be used to design a small piece of hardware that generates the bubble and maintains it for an awfully long time on a startlingly small power source. Sort of a Rube Goldberg or Buck Rogers gizmo, and I don't have to prove to you that it works; just review your tapes of the recent media coverage to see what it's like. There seems to be no end of scientific experts on important-looking panel discussions whose sole job these days consists of serious speculation on the bubble, what it's made of, how it works, and so on. Wait a few months, and you can read the books on it. Wait a bit longer, and you can watch the television show. Sit there on the couch, beer in one hand and remote control in the other, and puzzle yourself silly trying to figure it all out. Just remember -- don't let yourself get so engrossed in the analysis that you miss the lottery drawing or the latest episode of your favorite soap operas.

After I made the discovery, I very nearly lost it again. I was so shocked by the possibilities involved that I immediately went into a sort of psychic shock; I could not bear to face the fact that I had a set of ideas in my possession that could change my life dramatically. I've told you that I spend a lot of effort on maintaining a sort of emotional status quo, avoiding manic excitement as well as incapacitating depression by steering a middle course. When the principles that led to the creation of the bubble entered my brain, I walled off that part of my mind as if it contained a horrifying threat to my sanity (which, in a very real sense, it did).

I avoided thinking about the bubble for at least three months, going about my usual bland existence with no outward sign whatsoever of the explosive knowledge in my head. Looking back, I think it might have been better for me if I had actually managed to forget the whole thing. Sitting here watching the news helicopters circle overhead, I'm inclined to think that I would be definitely better off without the bubble.

Knowledge is an insidious, sneaky thing, however, and even though I made every conscious effort to divert my thoughts to other areas my subconscious kept pecking away at the problem. When I found myself doodling the same circuit diagram over and over during staff meetings at work, I finally gave in and decided to build a prototype. This was a major step for me; although I was pretty well convinced the damn thing would never work (and would thus depress me terribly), I had to get it out of my system.

I drew the diagrams, fiddled with the concepts, and refined the idea over a period of a couple of weeks. Like I said, the concepts are not dauntingly complicated or esoteric; it didn't take long to come up with a plan for testing the theory. Better engineers than I could most likely come up with much more elegant solutions to the problem of constructing the device, but for whatever reason, you're stuck with me. I gathered the materials for another month or so; I was not really in all that big a hurry. I was able to lose myself in the minutinae of ordering parts and designing the device, and thus was able to settle my mind into a routine and avoid thinking about the larger implications of what I was doing.

The device took shape in my basement workshop, piece by piece, and as I completed the various subsystems I was able to test them against the various parts of the theory. To my surprise, everything checked out; there were a few false starts and mistakes, but I took my time figuring out the problems and fixing them. I puttered along, making notes and listening to the radio while I added one piece after another, and finally the thing was done.

I had a pretty good idea what to expect from the device, but I was not about to risk my life or property to find out if my predictions were correct. I tested the device's systems several times, one after another, to make sure they performed according to plan, but I was reluctant to plug everything together and throw the final switch.

chapter 2 > >

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